BOOK REVIEW / The aristocratick revolutionist: Claude Rawson on a compelling biography of Edmund Burke, a man charmed by the calamities of kings: The great melody - Conor Cruise O'Brien: Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 25

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THE GREAT melody, according to Yeats's 'The Seven Sages', was Edmund Burke's response to four famous injustices:

American colonies, Ireland, France and India

Harried, and Burke's great melody against it.

Two words are especially resonant: 'harried', one of those moments in poetry when the metrical routine of enjambment becomes an instrument of exceptional emotional power (Yeats had a mastery in such things, second only perhaps to Milton's), and that stark inclusive 'it', to which Conor Cruise O'Brien returns again and again.

His attempts to define 'it' - as 'abuse of power' or 'authoritarianism', for example - might seem reductive. In fact, O'Brien allows the poetry to do what a bald explication won't, not by making Yeats do his work for him, but through a narrative which confers on the sweeping mastery of Yeats's lines a rich, sharply focused attention to detail. Nor does he let Yeats get away with expansive gestures which disguise rather than illuminate particulars. Quoting the famous lines from 'The Tower' about 'The people of Burke and of Grattan / That gave, though free to refuse', he comments that they 'were two distinct peoples, then in an adversarial relation to one another'. His point is that Burke belonged not to Grattan's Anglo-Irish caste, but to the Irish Catholic gentry, a central message of this book.

This 'thematic biography' is organised around Yeats's four headings, 'American colonies, Ireland, France, and India'. Little attention is given to Burke's personal biography outside these concerns, to his literary productions, his relations with Johnson, Boswell, Sir Joshua Reynolds and others. The four themes have not always seemed a single 'it', and O'Brien's project, powerfully carried out, is to prove them so. Three of the countries were 'harried' by a foreign power, France by its own oppressed people. The 'inconsistency' suggested by Burke's explosive denunciation of the Revolution surprised his friends and adversaries alike, and has exercised interpreters ever since. A Tory critic remarked that 'revolutions, or the calamities of kings, have not formerly been odious to Mr Burke'.

Whatever shift there may have been, it was not a temporal one. Burke continued his work on the impeachment of Warren Hastings for abuses of power in India long after he began his counter- revolutionary activism in the 1790s. Even hostile critics sometimes saw in the Reflections on the Revolution in France elements of revolutionary sympathy. Mary Wollstonecraft said that 'it has continually struck me, that had you been a Frenchman, you would have been, in spite of your respect for rank and antiquity, a violent revolutionist'. O'Brien finds this 'perceptive', though his main argument rests on Burke's distinction between limited revolutions like those of England (1688) and America, and 'limitless revolutions, totally innovative . . . which claim to extend the boundaries of liberty, but in fact result in successive mutations of despotism'.

Much of this is common ground. O'Brien restates it with a force that derives from an exceptional inwardness of understanding. He writes better than anyone I have read on Burke's insight into the dynamics of the revolutionary process, on the uncanny prescience of the Reflections and the fact that uninstructed readers sometimes take them to be referring to events which actually occurred later: 'the September Massacres, the Terror, the executions of the King and Queen' and even the seizure of power by Napoleon. People saw the book as alarmist, but it was Burke and not they who were vindicated by events.

It is perhaps the Irish and Catholic dimensions in Burke's career that interest O'Brien most. Burke's enemies accused him of being a secret Catholic. His father had converted to Anglicanism, in a move which probably reflected professional ambition rather than a change of faith. Burke's mother and wife were practising Catholics. O'Brien goes further than many students of Burke in the emphasis he places on his subject's Catholic sympathies. His evidence is for the most part circumstantial or speculative, and needs to be squared more satisfactorily with Burke's ringing celebration of the Church of England in the Reflections. But a powerful profile emerges, and the Catholic impulse is invoked as determining Burke's attitudes not only to Irish questions, but to America (including Canada), France (through his sense of the Revolution as an anti-Catholic enterprise), and even India. Burke came to identify the sufferings of Irish Catholics with those of Indians under British rule. Earlier English writers had made less friendly identifications between Irish 'savages' and the other 'Indians', of America, just as another persecuted minority, the French Huguenots, sympathised with Amerindians as victims of Catholic imperial power in the 16th century.

In 1646 John Burke, a Catholic Mayor of Limerick, advocated support for the English Royalists on condition that Irish Catholics were given equal rights. He was denounced by his more fanatical compatriots, and three years later fanatics and moderates alike fell under the sword of Cromwell. O'Brien would like the Mayor to be an ancestor of Edmund Burke, as perhaps he was. His courage against the oppressor, tempered by a dislike of extremists on his own side, add up to a set of human and political decencies for which O'Brien himself has always stood, as an 'anti- imperialist' Irish politician outspokenly and courageously opposed to the IRA.

This book is a personal testament. There is a sense in which Edmund Burke is a self-image, a public man and man of letters, like O'Brien himself. O'Brien is one of the very few anglophone politicians (Michael Foot is another) who is also a writer and literary critic of a high order, whose politics are literate and whose writing is energised rather than numbed by political activity and commitment. There are times when one feels that he has so assimilated his author that he takes criticisms of Burke, especially from Namierite sources, as personal slights.

Namier and his followers are an obsessive presence in The Great Melody. O'Brien is mesmerised by their hostility, sometimes to the point of forgetting, for example, that the real trouble with L G Mitchell's recent edition of Burke's writings on the French Revolution is not its snideness but its slovenly scholarship. O'Brien ascribes Namier's dislike of Burke to the shared experience of belonging to a 'stigmatised gentry' - Irish Catholic under the Penal Laws, Jewish in anti-Semitic Galicia. Burke's Catholic sympathies in an anti-Catholic culture are more than once compared to the situation of Jews in Christian societies. The perception is of a 'coded anti-Catholicism' similar to the tacit anti-Semitism of later times.

O'Brien bristles at Namier's references to 'the men whose livery (Burke) happened to have taken', but is perhaps too quick to dismiss Namier's remark elsewhere that 'if Burke was in a way looked down upon by his associates, this was due not so much to the contempt which the nobly born felt for his origin as to the admiration which he had for theirs: clearly no one can treat as an equal a man so full of respect and veneration'.

O'Brien has no difficulty in showing that Burke was no toady, or that some noblemen treated him with respect. But he overlooks the slightly overheated fervour with which Burke made himself the spokesman of aristocratic ideals, and took it on himself to recall the Whigs to their true character as an 'aristocratick Party'. The tone recalls that of non-patrician authors like Swift or Pope, promoting a lordly ethos which hardly reflected their own station in society. None of them pretended otherwise. Yeats, who grouped Swift, Berkeley, Goldsmith and Burke together in his mythologised evocation of Georgian Ireland, spoke of 'haughtier- headed Burke, that proved the state a tree'. This tells us more about Yeats's own aspirations than about Burke, but it also draws attention to some potent oddities: Burke calling on the Whig oligarchs to reassume their lordly obligations, Swift and Pope using lordly accents to put down lords. These were appeals to an idealised fiction, presupposing a congruence between virtue and rank which real life failed to support, but whose survival as a notional aspiration is still reflected in the semantic range of a term like 'noble'. Namier and even the wretched Mitchell had a point of sorts when they saw Burke's talents or interests as 'literary', but no point at all in supposing that they were therefore not political.